Burundi’s long-serving President Pierre Nkurunziza promised on Thursday to step down when his term ends in 2020, easing fears of fresh violence in the impoverished country.
Nkurunziza had been widely expected to take advantage of recent changes to the constitution to stand for two more terms – raising concerns that Burundi would see a repeat of the unrest that erupted after he stood for a third time in 2015.
But he told a ceremony: “My term is ending in 2020.”
“This constitution was not modified for Pierre Nkurunziza as the country’s enemies have been saying. It was amended for the good and better future of Burundi and the Burundian people,” he said in the speech broadcast on state television.
Opposition politicians who had accused him of trying to cling to power gave the statement a guarded welcome. “I think he just want(s) to calm internal public opinion and the international community,” Léonce Ngendakumana, the deputy chairman of the opposition FRODEBU group told Reuters.
The violence that erupted in 2015 shook a region still haunted by the 1994 genocide in Burundi’s neighbour Rwanda. Rwanda and Burundi have a similar ethnic mix.
Opponents accused Nkurunziza at the time of breaking the constitution and the terms of a peace deal that ended an ethnically-charged civil war. Thousands fled violence that erupted after protests and a failed coup.
Last month voters in the small central African nation approved changes to the constitution that would theoretically allow Nkurunziza to stay in power until 2034. The opposition said the vote was marred by intimidation and fraud – a charge the government denied.
Rights groups also raised the alarm. But Nkurunziza said on Thursday he would support whoever replaced him in 2020.
The former rebel leader first came to power in 2005 at the end of Burundi’s civil war that left at least 300,000 people dead.
Pro-democracy organisations and activists have criticised moves by several other long-serving African rulers, notably in Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo, to stay in power by extending term limits.
Burkina Faso’s veteran leader Blaise Compaore was driven out of office in 2014 amid mass demonstrations against his attempts to extend his 27-year rule.